Listen to the classic recordings of Earth, Wind & Fire, Fela Kuti, Parliament Funkadelic, the Average White Band, the Bar-Kays, Michael Jackson, James Brown and countless unsung soul bands, and what do you hear guitar-wise? Driving the sound are two interlocking guitar parts, with one player assigned to rhythm duties and the other to plucked single notes (sometimes called ”tenor” guitar). Syncopated interlocking guitar parts can be an essential ingredient of funk, and having two guitarists in a band (or overdubbing two guitars) is one way to replicate that classic sound. Chords and single-note tenor lines create a call-and-response, intertwined pocket. Which do you want to play, chick-a-wah or pluckies?
Luckily, you don’t have to choose. You can emulate the “rhythm/tenor” division with a single guitar. Rather than just chanking away at some chords, or plucking on some muted D-string notes, you can combine chords and single notes to create interlocking guitar parts all by your lonesome self.
To get started, check out Fig. 1A. It’s pretty unmusical, but it is a good building block and exercise for developing separation between chords and single notes. Try using all downstrokes, but also get comfortable with other strumming combinations: up-down, down-up and up-up. Fig. 1B adds a muted 16th-note scratch to give some rhythmic bounce to the upper Am chords.
In Figs. 1C and 1D we take the basic concept in a more musical direction by adding a Bm chord and a more melodic lower line. We add slides on beats 2 and 4, while retaining the previous example’s rhythmic chordal feel. Fig. 1C is played by two guitars, while Fig. 1D merges the two parts. There are countless possibilities for this and once you get the hang of this concept—“calling” upper chords that are “answered” with a lower line—you can develop your own riffs. Who knows, you may even get a song out of it.
Fig. 2A is a bit like a quick Fela groove, played by two guitars, and Fig. 2B fuses the parts into one guitar part. Try playing using all downstrokes (except for the “a” of beat 1). You can play this rhythm using a more legato approach, as illustrated in Fig. 2B, or with a choppy attack, à la Nile Rogers.